“Legislating is messy,” says Eric Lesser, and he ought to know.
As Senate chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, it has been Lesser’s Augean task to try to shepherd a sports betting bill through a Senate that has the appetite for it of a strict vegetarian at a pig roast. He filed his own bill in March 2021, including several provisions – most notably, a ban on wagering on college sports – that the House deemed unacceptable, then watched as his colleagues moved the goal posts even further.
The 25% top excise tax rate in Lesser’s bill grew to 35%. A “whistle to whistle” ban on advertising for betting services during sports broadcasts was inserted. (Wondered Sen. Patrick O’Connor of Weymouth: “Are we going to tell NESN you can broadcast DraftKings ads to New Hampshire and Vermont but not Massachusetts?”)
While the bill was ultimately approved on a voice vote, roll calls on several amendments show how unified the Senate was in support of a hard-line stance – an amendment aimed at paring down that tax rate was defeated 35-4.
Asked about the health of sports betting late last week, House Speaker Ron Mariano had the look of man in line at a wake as he noted: “we’re far apart.” In an interview with this column, chief House negotiator Jerry Parisella offered similarly funereal body language.
In theory, sports betting could beat the odds and stage a last-minute resurrection from its crypt. The Red Sox might also stage a miracle stretch run and win it all this year.
But we better get the obit ready. Lesser’s analysis: “Gaming is hard, it’s always hard,” he says. “At the end of the day you are dealing with a gambling product so there’s concerns members have about addiction, there’s concerns people have about, frankly, just bad consequences that could come from gambling.”
Senate President Karen Spilka’s contempt for state-sponsored gambling is unconcealed. But she didn’t need to twist arms on this one.
Despite sports-radio whining anyone who wants to lose their money on sports betting can already do so easily, if they haven’t already blown the rent on lottery tickets, Keno or at any of the state’s three charming casinos. It’s hard to credibly accuse legislators of puritanism in a state where marijuana dispensaries are so ubiquitous, the tiny town of Wellfleet – home to four of them – is known locally as “Potfleet.” And now, House willing, happy hours are back! (Whee! Crash!)
We’ve never been more flush with cash thanks to COVID funds and a booming local economy, which makes the estimated $35 to $70 million in sports betting revenues we might be forfeiting a rounding error. Between doling out all that sugar to local projects and the appalling lack of Republican challenges, plenty of incumbents apparently don’t feel the need to feed the voters this additional treat.
And then there’s the eternal loathing of Senate for House and vice-versa, manifested here in senators who see their body as the cosmopolitan, progressive brake on a reactionary, townie-filled House.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wasn’t writing about Beacon Hill, but he might have been: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”